Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire brings Sophocles’ Antigone to present-day London, weaving a remarkably timely tale of two British Muslim families with differing ideas about bigotry, belief and loyalty.
With the proposed ban on Muslim travel and the most recent attacks in London, your novel could not be more timely. How do you think fiction can help us make sense of political crises?
I can’t say I’m finding much sense in today’s political crises myself, but one of fiction’s gifts—and discomforts—is its ability to put us in the perspectives of people from whose lives we usually feel very removed. But having said that, reading is about an exchange that occurs between the novel and the reader, so you need readers with a willingness to be placed within those perspectives.
Your books often have multiple narrative threads. Home Fire is no exception. What does that format offers you as a writer?
The answer to that probably lies in John Berger’s wonderful and oft-quoted line: Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.
What is your family like? You mother is also a writer, isn’t she?
She is, and so is my sister. You know how Tolstoy said all happy families are alike? If he’s right about that (and who am to argue with Tolstoy), then my family is like all other happy families.
What kind of research did you do for Home Fire?
Different kinds of research. There was the book kind: reading a number of different translations of Antigone, since the novel draws heavily on it. The wandering kind: going around areas of London in which parts of the book were set, and talking to people there or just taking in the physical details. The drawing on memory kind: Most of the Massachusetts section required nothing more than thinking back to my grad school days at UMass Amherst, and subsequent visits. The taking from someone else kind: When I was starting the novel, the writer Gillian Slovo was working on a verbatim play called Another World: How we lost our children to Islamic State, and she did copious research and let me have whichever bits of it I wanted. The will-this-get-me-into-trouble kind: There was quite a lot I had to find out about life in Raqqa under Islamic State, for which I spent a lot of time looking over my shoulder while online, hyper-conscious of our world of internet surveillance. That hyper-consciousness worked its way into the novel, so perhaps I can consider it a form of research.
You have lived in Pakistan, the U.S. and England. How have those different countries influenced your writing?
I really don’t know how to point to a particular country and say, x or y aspect of my writing comes from there, but perhaps my interest in multiple narratives comes from moving between places of overlapping histories that see those histories from such different perspectives.
Home Fire features all the current modes of social media communication, such as Skype, Twitter and, of course, email. What are some of the challenges of depicting our very up-to-the minute modern forms of communication?
Honestly? The biggest challenge was to get over my dislike of using brand names in my novels. It feels too much like product placement, and also feels as though it’s the part of the novel most likely to start seeming outdated well before any other part of it does.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary writers?
Ali Smith, Michael Ondaatje, Nadeem Aslam, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Tahmima Anam, Elena Ferrante, Hisham Matar, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson.
You have a very lyrical style. Do you write any poetry?
No, but one of my earliest influences was the poet Agha Shahid Ali, so I’m happy to think he’s still to be found somewhere in my work.
Do you think of yourself as a political novelist?
I’m a writer. How I should be described more specifically is something that’s probably more relevant to those on the outside than to me. I like to think that every novel I write contains many different elements to it. Having said that, I am absolutely not someone who thinks that politics is separate from the most intimate details of people’s lives—from wars to visa regulations to health care, our lives are constantly coming into contact with, and being changed by, decisions made “on high.” My novels reflect this way of seeing the world.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Most writing days are followed by evenings with close friends, so I suppose that’s top of the list. Though the thing most likely to turn my writing day into a nonwriting day is the Pakistan cricket team (trust me, cricket is a far more thrilling sport than most noncricket fans realize).
Author photo credit Zain Mustafa.